Rich Russian romanticism from Nelsons and BSO, with a toothy premiere

October 6, 2017 at 11:20 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Andris Nelsons conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in music of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff Thursday night.

Andris Nelsons conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in music of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff Thursday night.

By 1907, Sergei Rachmaninoff had overcome one of his greatest obstacles.

Ten years earlier, the negative criticism that followed his First Symphony flung him into a deep depression, and he didn’t compose anything for several years. But when he did return to work he produced some of his most successful and enduring pieces, such as the Second and Third Piano Concertos and the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead.

His Symphony No. 2 in E minor, completed in 1908, is part of that company. Yet the work has had a curious history. Despite its popularity, and even before Rachmaninoff’s death in 1943, conductors began performing the work with significant cuts, a decision the composer rejected. But when Rachmaninoff’s popularity solidified in the last half of the twentieth century, more conductors returned to performing the full, hour-long version.

Andris Nelsons is one of them. Thursday night at Symphony Hall, he led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a performance of the work that captured the lush lyricism of the composer’s original vision.

Nelsons has a solid grasp of large-scale works such as this one. Tempos were fluid, phrases were shaped in vocal arcs, and the musical tapestry was richly detailed.

The themes of this symphony flow organically from the opening theme, which unfolded in both cloudy and sunlit phrases from the strings and winds. The ensuing quick section moved in a tasteful ebb and flow, and when the dark sonorities returned later in the first movement, the sound was deep and resonant.

In the Scherzo, Nelsons emphasized the music’s wide contrasts of mood with sensitivity, especially in the flowering melodies of the second theme. The finale’s summation of the previous movements, went with rousing energy. 

The clarinet solo of the Adagio, played by BSO principal William R. Hudgins, is one of the most beautiful moments in all of Rachmaninoff’s symphonies. Hudgins floated golden threads of melody over warm tones in the strings, and when the theme returned at the close of the movement, Nelsons wove the solo flute, clarinet, oboe, and French horn phrases into a silky fabric of sound. As with his reading of Mahler’s First Symphony two weeks ago, this was a performance in which to revel.

The concert opened with a bold and churning piece by Arlene Sierra.

Moler, a short curtain raiser written for and premiered by Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony in 2012, is a musical depiction of the grinding of teeth–the result, says the composer, of her nervousness about  making the deadline for this commission. 

Grinding is indeed the operative word, for the music never calms down in its nine-minute length. Brasses snarl, prickly rhythms bounce all about the texture, and strings and winds trade agitated phrases. But there is little sense of musical line in the piece. Instead, melodic figures stutter and freeze on bristly dissonances in a stark canvas of sound. Nelsons led this ear-catching piece with firmly controlled conducting that still allowed its raucous energy to flow.

The solo spotlight of the evening fell upon violinist Gil Shaham, who offered Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.

Gil Shaham

Gil Shaham

Popular as this work is, it is in danger of being overplayed. The BSO recently performed it in Tanglewood this past July as well as this past April in Symphony Hall, both times with Anne-Sophie Mutter as soloist. Shaham himself last performed the work in Tanglewood with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in the summer of 2016.

Yet one could forgive the recent frequency of this concerto on BSO programs given Shaham’s glowing and vital account Thursday night. His silver-laced tone brought searching depth to the opening theme of the first movement. His upper register was radiant, and the gnarly technical passagework that peppers this driving score had fine momentum. 

The Canzonetta flowed in soft phrases and featured the violinist in passages of haunting distance. The BSO winds and strings answered him with melodies of chamber-like delicacy.

The finale moved with vigor and fury, and Shaham’s tone took on the dusky quality of a country fiddle. Nelsons led a sturdy and committed accompaniment to match the violinist’s intensity, which resulted in the year’s most memorable performance of this much-played concerto.

For an encore, Shaham offered an elegant and dancing version of the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s Partita No. 3 for solo violin.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall.bso.org; 888-266-1200.

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